This week’s Economist magazine explored a question I have thought about a lot in my career. Is the ability to teach an innate skill that some have, and others do not; or is a skill that can be developed and taught? Our perception of whether great teachers are either born or made, leads to dramatic differences in how schools structure and emphasis professional development.
What really matters in education?
Plenty of research by John Hattie and others, now points to the fact that the quality of the teaching is the most important factor in shaping a child’s educational success. Over and above factors such as smaller class sizes or streaming by ability, the top 20 factors relate exclusively to what the teacher can do in the classroom. Therefore we need to make a very conscious effort in schools to upskill teachers in both the what and how of effective teaching and make exemplary practice more visible to others.
In my experience schools can explain what teachers should be doing to improve practice with documents such as IB Approaches to Teaching and Learning, but struggle to prioritise time to give teachers adequate support in discovering how these ideas can work in their classroom.
How do teachers learn?
With teaching as with other complex skills, the route to mastery is not abstruse theory but intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods (Economist, 2016)
The article makes interesting reading and highlights what several progressive groups are doing to help new teachers develop mastery through intentional practise, coaching feedback and relentless assessment. I don’t consider this to be anything revolutionary, but it is being done relentlessly and at scale. In my job as Digital Literacy Coach the most significant change has not come from sending out emails of ideas, but from helping teachers seeing how other respected teachers are using technology and then providing cycles of support, coaching and reflection to help the teacher grow and be confident.
In mainstream education, I think the development of teachers pedagogy is left to chance and seldom improved in a systematic manner. It is by chance that someone once went on a course on collaborative group work, or has read a book on formative assessment. Schools must encourage greater structured collaboration between peers and provide opportunities and time for exemplary teachers to support, mentor and coach others. I wasn’t really surprised by the statistic reported in the article below about such incredible isolation in the profession.
Few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback, as Western teachers. Today 40% of teachers in the OECD have never taught alongside another teacher, observed another or given feedback (Economist, 2016)
I do wonder if teachers at our school would respond in a similar fashion? I would hope that more than 40% of our teachers over their career that they have experienced these collaborative aspects. Despite every effort, schools still remain a closed door profession especially in High School settings. However it seems simple to engineer opportunities for greater feedback, observation and team teaching. Once a month could you cancel a weekly meeting and instead ask staff to observe a peer in their free periods?
This article more than most, has piqued my interest and I will try make two of the key observations from the article personal goals for next year;
- Engineering more opportunities for teacher collaboration in the form of team teaching, observation and feedback.
- Make the how of effective teaching more explicit to our teachers. We have a well document list of learning principles but not everyone has the same practical understanding how some of these could be employed in practice.
Additional Research and ideas
Below is some of additional research mentioned in the Economist article. After a bit of searching it presents a wealth of contemporary knowledge if you want to dive deeper. Hattie’s latest work is a good read.
- Rob Coe et al (2014) What makes great teaching?
- John Hattie (2015) What works best in Education: The politics of collaborative expertise
- Rob Coe (2015) What makes great teaching – presentation to IB World Regional Conference
- Teacher Development Trust UK (2015) Developing great teaching – Lessons From The International Reviews Into Effective Professional Development
- Rob Coe (2013) Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience
- NFER / Pisa in Action (2015) – Cognitive Activation in Maths
- Elizabeth Green (2014) Building a Better Teacher
- Rob Coe (2016) Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think